Expectation is the harsh mistress of the sports fan. Set your sites too low, and when your team does better, you can become frustrated, almost wishing your team would lose to prove that you were the most knowledgeable fan in the room. Set your sites too high and even the smallest defeat can send you crashing. I suspect I’m in the latter camp because Virginia’s failure to win against the Wolfpack has me questioning what I believed about this team.
At the start of the season, I expected the same success as to which we’ve become accustomed to over the past couple of years: a lot of wins, a lot of goals, a win or two in the ACC tourney and then after the almost-assured trip to the Sweet 16, another early exit from the NCAA tournament. Watching in-person the demolition of Penn State, only for the Lions to equalize with 3 minutes left, and then the immediate goal 26 seconds later, I thought this team could win it all.
But then the ACC slate began. We’ve played five games and we have now drawn the 6th, the 8th, and the 13th place teams in the ACC. Yeah, we’ve beaten the 9th and 14th place teams, but that’s not saying much, is it?
For this game, for once, our opponent did not come out and bunker. The wide defenders utilized the anti-UVa playbook of not letting Becca Jarrett or Alexa Spaanstra get baseline (grabbing jerseys was a big part of this tactic as the Wolfpack received three yellow cards for their efforts), they draped two players on Diana Ordonez, played Tziarra King on the right to nullify Courtney Petersen, and ran Jameese Joseph right at Phoebe McClernon all night.
Oh. The Wolfpack also had homefield advantage. It’s another small pitch and UVa loves the big field. The energy at the park was the best I’ve heard over a telecast: they had the band, thunder sticks, two dozen cow-bells, and raucous fans behind the goals.
Anyway, the plan worked. Again. Spaanstra, our most gifted offensive player, had another forgettable night. This play, coming early in the 2nd overtime, encapsulates her, and Virginia’s, recent play.
Dribbling toward her own goal, two NC State players about to steal possession, she makes a brilliant turn, accelerates incredibly (this is the 100th minute of play), has acres of space, and… just completely mishits the ball. I’m not sure what is wrong. I’ve written that she’s been manhandled at times, but not on this night. She is playing more centrally than she might be used to, what with central midfielder Taryn Torres playing a deeper role. Maybe she needs to move back to left wing.
Jarrett was active, but what touch she has deserted her. She had to slow down for her second touch all night. This denied her the opportunity to get baseline – that, and the jersey pulling – so she was forced away from space and successfully turned into defensive support all night. As I’ve said before, she’s learning a new position and she needs a Coerver DVD stat.
As for Petersen, she only had three or four crosses all game. NC State put Tziarra King on her, and while it wasn’t necessarily a battle royale between them, they did effectively nullify each other. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing for UVa: King is the second leading scorer in the ACC and two years ago she simply shredded the UVa back line for one of the prettiest goals you’ll never see. (Under the old, pre ACCN, UVa owns the film rights and they haven’t seen fit to release the video of an opponent looking good.)
Coach Steve Swanson continues to baffle me by his placement of Phoebe McClernon at right back. If McClernon has a defensive weakness, it’s that she’s not very good in the air, and it’s been suggested to me that maybe Swanson sees her playing at the next level as an outside back and he’s doing what he can to prepare her. If so, then Swanson is a better man than I am, because it is simply unfathomable to me that one could take the best player on a team with College Cup aspirations and give her a role that she is patently not cut out for.
Last week I suggested a couple of tweaks to the lineup that Coach Swanson could make, and for three whole minutes, Swanson did fundamentally shift the players. Claire Constant came in for the holding midfielder role, Torres moved out to left midfield and this pushed Spaanstra out to left wing. Three minutes after, right midfielder Anna Sumpter picked up a knock, Alyssa Gorzak came in, moved to left wing and Spaanstra dropped back to midfield.
On the night, Sumpter was the most effective player on the pitch as she is one of the few players who can actually dribble. It seems she has completely relegated former starter Sydney Zandi to the bench. It would be nice if she and Spaanstra looked to hook up more than they do.
As far as the game goes, for the first time in recent memory, Virginia was outshot in a game (13 – 12) though we had more corners (3 – 7). The game was fairly even, though Wolfpack keeper, did keep them in the game with two fine saves and a strong command of the penalty box on the few crosses that Petersen was able to make. In the second overtime, the game got stretched and looked like a Duke v UNC basketball game, the kind that features lots of great athletes running up and down the floor, not playing defense, just running and gunning. UVa had their moments, but the most dangerous dashed did belong to NC State, even if they couldn’t get a shot on goal.
With the two overtime periods, the women played 110 minutes. And everyone on both teams gave it their all. Looking at the players after the final whistle, from a clearly gassed McClernon, to sweat pouring off in buckets from the face of Wolfpack sparkplug Ricarda Walking, you know that these women are warriors all. While it was soul-crushing for me as a fan, this game was a great advertisement for the future of the women’s game.
Next Up: Florida State. With us not drawing UNC (for a second, stinkin’, crappy year in a row) this is the marquee fixture for the Cavs. The Seminoles are the reigning NCAA champions, have loads of skill on the ball, and after two weeks of being less than full strength due to national team commitments, have everyone back. I will have a preview of this game from SB Nation’s FSU affiliate, Tomahawk Nation writer Prince Akeem Joffer. I don’t do previews, only post-mortems, so this will be a nice feature leading up to game of the season. Wahoowa!